The last few years have seen an explosion in the number of articles about children being recruited and exploited by "county lines" drug gangs. Looking back over these reports, you can trace a process of acceleration: what began as stories of teenagers – particularly those excluded from school – being recruited to sell crack and heroin across the country has spiralled into young teens being paid £500 each to carry out stabbings, and the targeting of children as young as seven.
According to a report released last week by the Children's Society, tens of thousands of children are affected. Kids often suffer violence or threats of violence – to themselves or their families – to coerce them into joining gangs. Some are filmed performing sexual acts, with the footage used to blackmail them into taking part.
This has left the authorities desperately searching for ways to respond. One impulse has been to recognise that many children are forced into these situations – that they are victims of exploitation, rather than professional drug dealers. A landmark case in April of 2019 set legal precedent, with three men convicted of People Trafficking offences under modern slavery legislation for forcing young and vulnerable people to transport drugs.
But another, far more worrying, trend has also emerged. In August of 2018, it emerged that police forces were actively recruiting children as spies – or Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) – in order to infiltrate gangs. This meant children being deliberately sent into extremely dangerous situations, in order to gather intelligence.
This obviously presents serious ethical issues. The children's justice charity, Just For Kids Law, crowdfunded to take the Home Office to court, to challenge the practice. Home Office lawyers first tried to get the case thrown out on a technicality, then on the 8th of July the court eventually ruled in the government's favour. The police will be able to keep recruiting child spies, with minimal oversight.
I spoke to Jennifer Twite, Head of Strategic Litigation at JFKL, about what this ruling means for young people. "Under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, all governments have the duty to consider children's interests as the top priority. This is not happening here," she said. "We weren't even arguing in court that there should be an absolute prohibition on children being used. There can always be exceptional circumstances. But we argue that their lives or physical or mental well-being should never be deliberately put at risk."
There are very specific ways in which the current system seems to be failing children. "There's no lower age limit for the children used, and these kids are being spoken to by police without legal counsel or – if they are 16 or 17 – without even an appropriate adult present," said Twite. "Those are basic legal requirements if a child is arrested for any minor offence – but these children are being forced to take incredibly dangerous, life-changing decisions without even the same protections given to a kid arrested for shoplifting."
In response, the Home Office makes much of the fact that these children have agreed to take part in these covert operations. But, as Jennifer Twite points out, "that ignores the massive power imbalance between the police and a terrified teenager, who may be being coerced into criminality in the first place".
This is surely the nightmare scenario: a young person being exploited and threatened with violence by criminal gangs on the one side, and exploited for co-operation and threatened with punishment by police on the other.
Former undercover detective Neil Woods, who gave evidence at the trial, explained the dangers these children face, and how these police tactics developed: "I suffered severe PTSD not only because of the violence I saw working undercover, but because of the psychological stress of having to live a double life. But I did that work as an adult. A child is so much more at risk."
"But what's crucial," he continued, "is we have to understand that these tactics are an inevitable product of drugs policing. County lines, and the exploitation of children, were developed by organised crime groups as a response to police successes in arresting gangsters. They realised children could easily be used as a buffer between them and the police – and kept in line through violence. The inevitable outcome to the use of child informants will be even worse violence, to scare them from co-operating."
Jennifer Twite echoed this concern. "We may try and appeal the case, though the Home Office is pursuing us for court costs – despite us being a charity. What's really scary, though, is that because these operations are kept secret, when serious harm does come to one of these kids – when someone is actually stabbed, for instance – we may never even know. For all we know, it might have already happened."